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The following incisive analysis by a senior British diplomat results from two talks he gave in the United States under the auspices of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. Sir Brian is the former Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs in the European Union Council of Ministers. — Ed.

EU-U.S. Relations and the Implications of Iraq

What Iraq did was lay bare the fault-line always endemic in European foreign policy but usually papered over: what to do when the EU and US pull apart.

1) Following the Iraq war the Atlantic has never been so stormy. Differences have of course always existed in transatlantic relations, some quite serious at the time. But it is only since the end of the Cold War that the differences have swelled enough in number and nature to raise seriously the question (in Europe) whether the United States is still a force for good in the world and (in America) whether Europe is still relevant, or even a menace to U.S. interests (though it is hard to see how it could be both). How did this come about? A number of factors on both sides of the Atlantic contributed.

2) Starting with Europe: With the end of the Cold War the Europeans continued to look to the United States for their ultimate security, and to expect and indeed want U.S. leadership, in recognition of the overwhelming size and power of the United States, as well as of our shared values. And they expect to be on the same side as the United States, at least on the essential issues, even if America and Europe have now, as they always have had, different interests in particular areas, e.g., in trade disputes or different approaches to some problems. But the end of the Cold War also meant, if not quite the end of history, then at least the start of a new world in which Europe (i.e., the EU) became less deferential to, because less dependent on, the United States.

3) Europe increasingly felt that it could, and should, become more of an independent actor, not in the sense of being competitive, but rather in the sense of a more genuine and equal partnership. It started trying to cut its teeth on tackling foreign policy problems without the United States, with U.S. compliance, in the Balkans. An unfortunate declamation in 1991 typified this new approach: Jacques Poos, the Luxembourg foreign minister who was at the time holding the presidency of the EU, in a remark that has gone down in history as particularly inapposite, declared that this was the hour of Europe. As we all know the EU’s efforts in the Balkans failed and it took U.S. intervention and leadership, both political and military, first in Bosnia (Dayton) and then over Kosovo, to put the Balkans on track to peaceful rather than violent change. But this very reliance on U.S. intervention in an area which was EU’s own backyard reinforced the sense that Europe must be better equipped to run a foreign policy itself. It shamed the EU into two important decisions to this end at the European Council at Cologne in June 1999.

4) One was the appointment of a high profile and distinguished international statesman, Javier Solana, to take the newly created post of High Representative of the EU’s CFSP. The other was, for the first time, to give what had hitherto been a 100 per cent civilian organisation its own military capability, a revolutionary culture change, through the creation of a new European Security and Defence Policy. This was given its essential parameters six months later in 1999 at Helsinki : a corps-level (60,000 men) expeditionary military capability at sixty days notice sustainable for at least a year, to be paralleled by a civilian capability to restore/maintain law and order in post-conflict situations with police forces and other instruments of the rule of law.

5) Meanwhile the EU was steadily strengthening its relations with such important neighbours as the old adversary Russia and its neighbours in the Mediterranean to the south. It increasingly if largely unsuccessfully demanded a voice on international issues in which it had a stake, notably the Middle East problem, with the slogan that it should not just be expected to pick up the tab for policy actions decided exclusively by the United States. It is about to expand its membership to end the Cold War division of the European continent into two halves. Drawing on its experience of creating an EU founded on cooperation and integration, it has increasingly proselytised the advantages of spreading to a wider world the benefits of rules-based systems to manage international relations and disputes between states. In doing so it placed the UN at the centre of its foreign policy. And it actively espoused the spread of international rules-based arrangements on issues which had been handled exclusively nationally: climate change was only the most important of these.

6) This is not intended to imply that on the other side of the Atlantic international cooperation and rules-based arrangements were simply ignored or discarded. The United States was after all the leading architect of the UN and the other post-war institutional arrangements. Up to the end of the Clinton administration support for these institutions was certainly in word, if not always in deed, central to U.S. foreign policy.

7) And America continued to be the undisputed leader of the world’s democracies. European efforts to strike out on their own a bit more met with only limited success. They could have some success in Africa, or East Timor, or even (latterly) in the Balkans. But actually the EU has been effective in its foreign policy only where the United States has chosen not to be significantly engaged, where the EU and the United States shared policies and worked together, or at least where the EU accepted however reluctantly that it had to work with the United States (e.g., in the Middle East). In other words, European foreign policy was, and continues to be, in an important sense a function of Europe’s relationship with America. As Bill Clinton put it, the United States is the “indispensable nation”

8) What Iraq did was lay bare the fault-line always endemic in European foreign policy but usually papered over: what to do when the EU and the United States pull apart. Indeed, partly for this very reason, Iraq had never seriously figured on the EU’s agenda at any level. This was partly because the two European permanent members of the UNSC were not prepared to have their UN actions constrained by EU coordination. But it was also because Iraq was recognized to be damagingly divisive and therefore best left alone so that Europe could concentrate on making progress on other less divisive issues.

9) On the other side of the Atlantic things had also naturally been changing in reaction to the end of the Cold War. These included

a) -the United States of course also welcomed and supported the fall of the Berlin Wall, the progression of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to membership of NATO and the EU, and the transformation of Russia from adversary to partner, sometimes rather more than the Europeans themselves. At the same time, the elimination of the threat to U.S. security from the European continent not unnaturally led Washington to see the frontline of its security no longer in Europe, but rather in other parts of the world, whether China or the litany of issues we are all now familiar with: terrorism, WMDs, failed states, etc.

b) -before the second Bush presidency this realignment of U.S. foreign policy priorities was a natural response to a much changed world, but a world nonetheless in which the United States continued to combine leadership with institutionalised cooperation with other countries and within multilateral institutions. Kosovo was, for example, a NATO operation, however much dominated by the United States. What changed with the arrival of George W. Bush even before 9/11, at least as seen from Europe, was the conviction that pre-eminent American power could and should dispense with the structural arrangements which constrained U.S. freedom of action: America had the power itself to regulate the world. This underlay not only Iraq but also, before that, the Bush regime’s rejection of Kyoto, the ICC, and the ABMT, in all of which previous administrations had more or less willingly acquiesced.

c) -9/11 (the traumatic effect of which is still insufficiently recognized in Europe) made the American public, shocked to the core by this devastating external assault, much more supportive of a more unilateralist U.S. foreign policy and played a catalytic role in shaping the future of U.S. foreign policy. It gave rise, beyond the action in self defence against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan with which the world totally sympathised, to the National Security Strategy for the US in Sept 2002. This policy statement upholds democratic etc values and prefers cooperation with others, but nonetheless arrogates to the United States the right to be prosecutor, judge, and jury in its own case in deciding on preemptive unilateral military action when it feels it might become threatened. It was not that the idea of pre-emptive military action was new. After all, Madeleine Albright made it clear in her recent memoirs that the Clinton administration, long before 9/11, also threatened the Taliban with preemptive military action if they protected terrorists or Osama bin Laden. What was new, and provocative, was its assertion in the NSS as a guiding precept, rather than a pragmatic response

d) –the provocation lay also in the first application of the doc-trine, in Iraq, when the international community in general, and the EU in particular, were forced into an unwelcome, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t choice between supporting or opposing a United States determined to have its own way by military action against Iraq over issues (WMD, terrorism, even regime change) on which it failed then, and has frankly for the most part still failed, to persuade international opinion. (Wolfowitz: “The truth is that for reasons that have to do with the USG bureaucracy we settled on the issue that everyone could agree on, which was WMD, as the core reason.”)

10) Given the fragile progress being achieved in CFSP, given the EU’s reluctance to discuss Iraq and given that finally when they did, the subject raised a host of very difficult issues, it would have been remarkable if the EU had been able to arrive at a common approach. These issues after all involved not just war or peace, but legitimacy, the role of the UN, Iraqi territorial integrity, the economic consequences, regional stability, and finally the whole nature of the transatlantic relationship and atavistic European reactions to it. In the end, in an important sense the real issue over Iraq for the Europeans was less what to do about Iraq than what to do about a United States determined, according to a view widely held in Europe, to ride rough-shod over the hitherto accepted rules of international, consensus-building behaviour to which all of Europe, including the UK, attached such importance. Hence PM Blair’s impassioned, frenetic, and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to get the UN behind U.S. intentions and actions.

11) The situation in the EU was of course complicated by the different responses of what might in shorthand be called the French and British schools. France was unconvinced of the im-minence or even the reality of the Iraqi threat, certainly as warranting war at that time. Conversely the British Prime Minister is known to have thought the Iraqi threat serious and real even before 9/11. He believed strongly in the need to sustain the transatlantic relationship and clearly thought he could influence the Washington to work within the UN framework, and France to allow the UNSC to support U.S. military action. In the event, neither the Blair/UK Atlanticist nor Chirac/Gaullist approaches influenced U.S. policy objectives. The United States emerged before, during, and after the Iraq war openly determined to work with only those who would work with it and ignore the rest, with the multilateral system/UN seriously damaged at least on security issues.

12) None of this is to say that the United States has come to rely only on military or “hard” power. As Richard Perle has said, “We’re not going to make war on the world for democracy. . . . We should be using all instruments of American influence to accomplish that purpose and most of these instruments are not military.” And the United States does, of course, also have soft as well as hard power. Indeed U.S. aid is often much more effectively targeted to support political objectives than EU aid. The EU takes credit for being the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, but at $1 billion this is a great deal less than the $3 billion which the United States pays to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel in support of their peace treaties. The EU has nothing to compare, despite its great interest, in the $800 million which the United States spends in the former Soviet Union on the very important nuclear threat reduction programme. And in the State of the Union address on 20 January 2004, President Bush announced, in the United States’ assertive push for democracy in the Middle East, plans for new funding for the Voice of America, other broadcast services, and a new television service, as well as for doubling the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy for the Middle East. At the same time the United States ranks last among the twenty-one major providers of aid to the developing world with only 0.1 per cent of GDP (much of that tied or constrained, e.g., abortion/contraception) against an EU average of 0.55 per cent, with half of it going to just two countries, Egypt and Israel. Senator Lugar pointed out in February 2003 that “Even after a healthy increase in the last fiscal year, U.S. foreign assistance in constant dollars has declined about 44% since Ronald Reagan’s Presidency in 1985 and about 18% since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”

13) Iraq brought home to everybody the willingness of the United States to cast aside international constraints and inter-nationally-recognised legitimacy conferred by the support of the international community through the UN. In this it appeared to set the seal on the divergence that had been developing across the Atlantic since the end of the Cold War which I have tried to describe. George Bush indeed, the day after the passage in October of UNSCR 1511 broadening international responsibility for Iraq, reaffirmed that pre-emptive military action was not Iraq-specific. At the same time, Iraq may also have exposed the limits of the effectiveness and durability of the unilateral assertion even of American power. “Life itself” (in that handy Russian phrase), has manifested itself in the post-war troubles in Iraq. There is in addition a huge agenda of international and global issues which the United States cannot possibly resolve on its own. Hopes have been raised in Europe that the America would see its interest in again using, and supporting, international structures for resolving difficult international issues.

14) On the one hand one could discern indications that the Iraq experience might indeed already have produced the result that there would be no more Iraqs. The administration’s current cautious approach to Iran and North Korea could be seen to bear this out. Such caution would surely be reinforced by severe budgetary constraints in the short term (the two per cent of GDP for which the President has asked Congress for Iraq may be affordable on its own, but on top of a budget deficit according to the CBO of four per cent in 2003?). In the longer term in, say thirty years, economists (Jagadeesh Gokhale, Cleveland Fed, and Kent Smetters, former Treasury DAS) have calculated that the shortfall between the present value of all of the revenue the U.S.government can expect to collect in future, and the present value of all its future expenditure commitments, including debt service but including particularly also pension, medicare and Medicaid commitments, is a staggering $44,000 billion (the federal debt is a mere $6,500 billion). A crisis of these proportions, with a doubling of the elderly population and the medicare budget already (over the past twenty years) rising five times faster than the defence budget, seems unlikely to be soluble by cutting the benefits, so something else will have to give. That seems likely to be the more discretionary expenditure on things like foreign policy and very large defence budgets.

15) And it is the case that, while unilateralism has some ideo-logical underpinning in present-day Washington, in practice the United States has often chosen unilateralism not out of preference, but because of a perception that the multilateral structures and even their European partners were not paying enough attention to serious U.S. concerns. Maybe there is validity in the quip that for Clinton, it was “together if we can, alone if we must,” whereas for Bush it is “together if we must, alone if we can.” Even under Bush, however, one can find in the U.S. texts—for example in President Bush’s speech in the Banqueting House in London last November, or more recently in an op-ed article by Colin Powell in the London Times of 6 January 2004—strong re-affirmations of the U.S. preference for working with partners in a common endeavour.

16) At the same time U.S. foreign policy objectives remain very assertive, even abrasive and challenging: the aggressive assertion of traditional Wilsonian “liberal” values (democracy), which is perhaps the contribution of the neo-conservatives to American foreign policy. In the Middle East, for example, George Bush proclaimed in London in November and repeated in the State of the Union address on 20 January 2004, that the United States had “adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” and would “no longer tolerate oppression for the sake of stability.”

17) These objectives, along with the war against terrorism and a host of other matters, are in fact shared on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the assertiveness of their expression that is not. The policy statements of the Europeans, whether the EU or individual countries, are studded with the promotion of democracy, good governance, the rule of law and human rights as central themes in our foreign policy. The EU’s security strategy, adopted last December, says in words that might almost have been taken from President Bush’s National Security strategy of a year earlier, “The best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states” (although the European Strategy goes on to talk about strengthening the international order, law, and the UN). The question is whether, in the light of the events of the past year or two, these shared objectives can be addressed together by agreeing on the means. What Madeleine Albright called “assertive multilateralism,” calling for U.S. leadership to get things done, is at least multilateralism, which is what the Europeans require.

18) There may now be an opportunity to take advantage of the situation after Iraq to rebuild the transatlantic relationship politically and institutionally and to generate a common agenda of issues to be tackled together. Because there is a huge agenda of issues out there which can only be tackled effectively together. Recent developments in Iran (willingness to cooperate with the IAEA) and Libya (renunciation of WMD) support the idea that the US and Europeans working together can produce results which neither could have secured on their own.

19) There are essentially two questions: Do we all want to, and if so can we, get back to a world in which Americans and Europeans pull together effectively for the common good, back in fact to the kind of partnership which, despite all the difficulties, we had during the Cold War? The second question is really one for us Europeans: Are we going to get our act together and act as one in the EU, enabling us to harness more effectively the resources and capabilities that we have jointly but not individually, and thereby actually to influence the policies of others, especially the United States? This is something we have to date been remarkably unsuccessful at. Or are we going to work with the United States, if at all, individually or in ad hoc coalitions of the willing, which might suit many in Washington better, but would ensure in perpetuity totally marginal European influence on policy? It will not surprise you to hear that I favour the first alternative.

20) Institutionally, NATO remains vital to the transatlantic relationship: how vital will depend on how much the United States turns to it for international military interventions. This depends in turn on the Europeans producing credible military forces. The establishment of a NATO Rapid Response Force in October 2004, to reach a strength of 20,000 by 2005 and deployable at five days notice, is a good sign. But if the Europeans are ever going to make an independent and effective contribution to the transatlantic partnership in facing the challenges of the twenty-first century, it is the EU-U.S. relationship, rather than NATO, which is crucial and which needs to be greatly strengthened. NATO remains a necessary reassurance to self-doubting Europeans about their own security, but as a foreign policy tool it will always be a tool of U.S. rather than European foreign policy. It is the EU where the Europeans seek their common identity and interest in acting together to play a role commensurate with their size, GDP, and resources. NATO, while central to their military and political security, is not only dominated by the United States, it is a forum in which there is to date absolute U.S. hostility to the Europeans acting in concert with each other.

21) But a number of things need to be done, mostly but not just by the EU, before the Europeans can expect the America to take the EU seriously as a partner rather than merely a follower, at least on security issues. First and foremost the Europeans must answer my second question (yet again): Do they really want a common foreign policy which will enable them collectively to increase their weight in international affairs?

22) Asked this question, our leaders always answer yes, but it is not always the way they have behaved, even before Iraq split the EU and Europe down the middle. There is no denying that Europe is in disarray, and not only because of Iraq. It is embarking on the enormous challenge of the biggest and most difficult enlargement yet (not to mention a decision at the end of this year on whether negotiations with Turkey should open). It faces the divisive challenge of negotiating new financing arrangements. Its stability and growth pact, an essential part of the Euro, has collapsed in bitterness, with the Commission taking the two largest member states to the European Court. The Meeting of EU Heads of State and Government who were supposed in December to wrap up a new constitutional treaty to make possible the management of an EU enlarged from fifteen to twenty-five members ended prematurely in discord. In the foreign policy field the large member states seem increasingly willing to act outside the EU to escape the constraints of the smaller member states, or even the presidency (Italian at the time) hanging round their necks (Iran, Libya). This recalls the formation of the Contact Group in 1994, during another questionable Presidency at that time (Greek), to enable the UK, Germany and France to work together on the Balkans outside an EU framework with the United States and Russia. And the issue is essentially the same: how to get effective real-time action in an EU of countries of nominal equality but vastly disparate foreign and security policy weight.

23) At the same time the EU has always progressed in fits and starts and through crises. Our leaders continue to assert the importance of common European policies and a European voice and influence in shaping the world. If they mean what they say, then they must also take the decisions enabling the EU to speak with a single voice in the foreign as well as the trade policy fields, both through the structural changes under discussion in the new Constitutional treaty (notably the creation and empowerment of an EU foreign minister) and, as important as anything else, a coherent view on the nature of the European partnership with the United States. In fact it is probably the disagreement within the EU on how to deal with Washington which has most divided the Europeans and made it so difficult to get our act together. To do that needs first and foremost an understanding between the UK and France which would combine loyalty to and support for our close ally, partner and leader, the United States, while being able to stand back and draw red lines if the United States is going further than the Europeans can support.

24) Other things we need to do include a genuine, effective and deployable (if by U.S. standards still modest) military capability, to be used whether in a NATO operation or by the EU autonomously (without or with recourse to NATO assets under Berlin Plus) when “NATO as a whole is not engaged.”

25) And finally the Europeans need to show greater willingness to take seriously the challenge which Kofi Annan put also to the UN General Assembly: how to address the genuine issues which, unaddressed, tempt the world’s only superpower to go it alone. Proliferation is a case in point: the Europeans took far too long to appreciate the threat from Iran, and their contribution to the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) was pitiful. More widely, the EU needs to be convincing, and not only to the United States, that it is part of the solution, not of the problem, and perhaps be more reticent in pushing issues which stick in the throat of the country on which we all still rely, indispensably, as leader. The International Criminal Court and landmines could be examples. Sale of military equipment to China is another current one: We Europeans need to pay heed to the fact that it is the United States, not we Europeans, who have shouldered the responsibility of assuring the security of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

26) The United States for its part has a corresponding responsibility to exercise restraint in forcing issues unnecessarily faster than the international traffic will bear. Beyond that, it must be persuaded by the Europeans to deal with the EU, and not just with individual EU countries. But the real issue for the United States is whether it will pay more than lip service to being leader rather than boss, not at all the same thing. It is perhaps worth recalling that today is not the first time that America has been the Goliath on the world stage—the world’s only hyper-power as French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine put it. The situation in 1945 was of course in many ways completely different to today’s, but what was not different was the power of the United States relative to everybody else: Europe, Japan, and China were prostrate, even the vaunted Red Army was on its last legs with the effort, the U.S. military-industrial complex was running at a world-beating full tilt and America was the only nuclear power. The U.S. response then was not to use its power to go it alone or in coalitions of those willing to do U.S. bidding, but on the contrary to set about the creation of a rules-based and co-operative multilateral system, including the creation of the UN and the Bretton Woods system, and the launching (and more importantly implementing) of the Marshal Plan.

27) That is certainly not the mood of the moment now. Whether in the speeches of the President of the United States, the reflections of U.S. leaders which get into print or, for example, a speech I heard recently in London by the U.S. emabassy deputy chief of mission, the sentiment remains essentially that those who are with us will do what we say, while those who won’t do what we say are against us. This is, frankly, a lousy basis for partnership, even for something as uniting for us all as the war on terrorism, or rather the political/fundamentalist ideologies which use terror as their weapon (a crucial distinction which is often lost). It may be a while before the pressures towards a more genuine partnership—of course one still based on U.S. leadership which remains indispensable—have their effect. I would like to think the process has started, with the shifts in American positions in Iraq, with the cooperation over Iran, with the new grand plan for the Middle East, if it is for real. But as one wise and sophisticated European commentator, François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, put it in the Financial Times on 6 February, “America’s difficulties in post war Iraq should have led the White House to treat Europeans as full partners rather than as tools—at best—or as antagonists, at worst. But there are few significant signs of this happening.” The jury is still out on whether the United States listens only when it must (e.g., under pressure of the situation in Iraq), or because it wants genuine cooperation and a good element of co-decision.

28) Just before coming in I received an e-mail from a friend who, before he recently sadly passed away, knew that I was going to be giving this talk. I am going to read it to you because it goes to the heart of the problem we have been discussing. Writing from the other side (yes, heaven is on the internet), he wrote: “I thought I would just let you know that I got through the pearly gates OK on the basis of my record as a British diplomat promoting world peace and being nice to Americans. I then paid the statutory diplomatic courtesy call on God, which I thought a good opportunity to seek his guidance about your problem. So I asked him: God, with all the quarrelling and tensions across the Atlantic, will the transatlantic relationship ever be an equal partnership of mutual understanding?” God thought for a moment or two before replying: “Tell your friend not to worry. True transatlantic partnership is inherent between two great populations who have brought democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and respect for human rights to the world. Just not in my time.” There’s rather a lot at stake. I can’t help feeling, with other participants at a transatlantic conference I went to recently, that “together beats the hell out of separately.” I just hope we get there before “separately” causes yet more damage in the world. It would be nice if we could prove God too pessimistic.

17 February, 2003

Copyright Brian L. Crowe 2004


Brian L. Crowe


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